Trainer Joseph O’Brien dispatched two Irish shippers for the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival, and nearly pulled a double in his Friday targets at Belmont Park. After Thundering Nights just missed in a photo with Mean Mary in the $750,000 New York S. (G2), stablemate Baron Samedi justified 13-10 favoritism in the $400,000 Belmont Gold Cup (G2).
New York S. (G2)
Alex G. Campbell Jr.’s homebred Mean Mary successfully defended her title in the New York, despite facing far softer conditions than ever before in her career. The one constant, however, was that the Graham Motion mare made the most of her status as controlling speed.
On an inner course that turned yielding after a downpour, and weather delay, Mean Mary got a flyer out of the gate and never looked back. Regular rider Luis Saez nursed the 2.70-1 favorite through fractions of :25.09, :50.31, 1:15.83, and 1:40.22. Still two lengths clear in midstretch, Mean Mary was comfortably holding Virginia Joy and Harvey’s Lil Goil.
Then Thundering Nights finally lengthened stride. Gaining fast, the 4.30-1 chance drew alongside Mean Mary as they crossed the wire. But the favorite held on by a nose while completing 1 1/4 miles in 2:04.68.
My Sister Nat closed from last to grab third by a neck from Virginia Joy. Harvey’s Lil Goil retreated late in fifth, followed by Mutamakina, Magic Attitude, Civil Union, and early stalker Traipsing. Always Shopping was scratched in favor of Saturday’s Just a Game (G1), and Antoinette and Micheline were likewise withdrawn.
Mean Mary became the second repeat winner of the New York, after Batteur in 1964 and 1965 (second division). The first division in 1965 went to Blue Thor, who’d scored in 1963 as well, making her the only other two-time winner in non-consecutive years.
“I was really anxious when I saw (Thundering Nights) closing so fast,” Motion said, “but I had felt pretty confident to that point. She was really running. She came out of the gate like a rabbit. I’d never seen her break like that. She really does love it. She’s such a cool filly.”
“She just broke well and she loves to run free,” Saez said. “I was just so glad to be on her. She got a great trip, broke out of there so well. She always breaks pretty well, but today was better than ever. She controlled the pace. The track was a little soft, but she handled it. She tried pretty hard the whole time.
“Johnny (Velazquez on Thundering Nights) came flying there, but she gave me that last kick. She’s a hard fighter.”
Velazquez noted that his filly needed time to pick up once in the clear.
“I got the position I wanted on the backstretch,” the Hall of Famer said. “I was in a comfortable position, but it took a lot longer for her to get going down the stretch.
“I was stuck behind the two horses in front of me and it took me a long time to get her going. Once she got loose, she came running but it was too late.”
“I’m really proud of her effort,” O’Brien said. “She ran a huge race and it was a great run from her. She really hit the wire strong and lost a little bit of ground on the first turn, which maybe cost us the race.”
Mean Mary now attained millionaire status, with $1,006,160 in earnings from an 11-7-2-0 line. The Scat Daddy mare romped in last year’s New York to cap a four-race winning streak including the La Prevoyante S. (G3) and Orchid S. (G3). She put up a brave fight in the Diana (G1) before yielding to champion Rushing Fall, and concluded the season with a subpar seventh in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1). Mean Mary returned a frontrunning winner in the May 15 Gallorette S. (G3) on Preakness Day.
Another tilt at the July 17 Diana at Saratoga is under consideration, but Motion mentioned the Aug. 14 Beverly D. (G1) at Arlington as possibly his preference.
“I may go to the Beverly D. The Diana has not been kind to me, but we’ll see,” the horseman said.
Out of the Grade 1-winning Dynaformer mare Karlovy Vary, Mean Mary is a half-sister to reigning Saranac S. (G3) scorer Bye Bye Melvin.
Belmont Gold Cup (G2)
LECH Racing’s Baron Samedi remained perfect in seven starts since being gelded, and extended the dominance of Europeans, in the two-mile Belmont Gold Cup.
Also ridden by Velazquez, the four-year-old bided his time well off the pace. The early tempo was genuine for the distance, especially on a yielding Widener course that made it a stamina-sapping test.
Frontrunner So High spurted clear through splits of :50.11 and 1:15.48, slightly quicker than Mean Mary in the New York, and reached the mile in 1:43.03. Although Conviction Trade passed him on the next tour of the backstretch, clocking splits of 2:08.61 and 2:33.99, So High regained the lead on the final turn.
By that point, Baron Samedi was coming under a vigorous ride on the hedge, but the favorite responded with a sustained rally. Slogging down the lane, he drifted out, switched back to his left lead, and still stamped his authority by 2 3/4 lengths in a final time of 3:27.30.
Argentine import Fantasioso, who was gaining near Baron Samedi just as he wandered around, checked in second. He couldn’t be considered unlucky, though, given the beaten margin. Another length back came in third came Ajourneytofreedom. Slow-starting Kinenos was along for fourth to round out the superfecta of closers.
So High came home fifth. Ziyad traveled well in a good midpack position, one spot ahead of Baron Samedi, and appeared to be going better rounding the final turn, only to weaken in the stretch. Conviction Trade and the tailed-off duo of Strong Tide and Tide of the Sea rounded out the order of finish.
Baron Samedi was completing quite a transatlantic double for sire Harbour Watch, whose son Pyledriver prevailed in the Coronation Cup (G1) earlier Friday at Epsom.
“This horse just doesn’t get tired; he just keeps coming and coming,” Velazquez said. “But I had to ride him because he’s kind of slow-paced. He’s a grinder, just keeps coming and coming. I didn’t want to end up being a little too soon, so I thought I’d better just keep him going. He did everything good. Once we got to the three-eighths pole I was riding him and getting to where I wanted to be and he gave me a good feeling from then on. The course was very soft, but he handled it well. No complaints.”
“Baron Samedi is a very good horse,” O’Brien said, “and Johnny gave him a great ride. He hadn’t been that far before, but he had handled that kind of track before, so we weren’t worried about the rain. We just worried about them taking the race off the turf. I’m very proud of our team and a big thanks to the owners for allowing us to do this.”
Gelded after going unplaced in his first five starts, Baron Samedi promptly rose through handicaps until capturing his Group debut in last fall’s Prix du Conseil de Paris (G2). He made it six in a row in his comeback in the April 25 Vintage Crop (G3) at Navan, and the Belmont Gold Cup advanced his record to 12-7-0-0, $365,180.
Baron Samedi was bred by Usk Valley Stud in Great Britain and purchased for a scant 3,500 guineas as a Tattersalls December weanling. The bay is out of the Haafhd mare Dame Shirley, an unraced full sister to 2016 Meydan Sprint (G3) upsetter Fityaan. Group 3-winning second dam Welsh Diva is a full sister to Group 2 victor Trans Island.